O Magnum Mysterium is a Catholic church chant sung at Christmastime. As part of the Matins (nighttime worship), the text has been around for centuries. While the exact origins are unknown, historians believe the text (and its use in Catholic Mass) has been around since at least the 10th century.
Because the work is so old, there have been many different settings and versions throughout the years. Today I want to share the version composed by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), Spain’s most famous 16th-century composer.
An accomplished composer, organist, and singer, Victoria is one of the most well-known composers of the Counter-Reformation (the period of Catholic resurgence initiated as a response to the Protestant Reformation). He became known for his musicianship at a young age, and when he was 17 he moved to Rome where he interacted with the top composers of the time. Victoria exclusively wrote sacred music, and after his time in Rome, he enjoyed composing back in Madrid.
O Magnum Mysterium was first published in 1572 as a choral motet (a fancy name for a Renaissance choir piece). However, 20 years later Victoria used this work as the basis for a Mass. The recording above is the motet.
|Latin text||English text|
|O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
Dominum Iesum Christum.
|O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
The first half of the chant references the animals present at Jesus’s birth, symbolic of God’s mysterious and lowly life as a mortal. This was a topic of great excitement during the Renaissance; people loved the idea that the animals in the stable recognized the birth of Jesus as an important event. The painting Nativity by Hans Baldung in 1520 demonstrates this idea.
The second half of the text relates to the words spoken by Elizabeth when she welcomes Mary, the mother of Jesus, into her home:
“And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” – Luke 1: 42-43
The electric opening of O Magnum Mysterium sets the tone for the rest of the piece. Each voice subtly enters, shifting harmonies and painting layers of sound as the text introduces the “great mystery” of Jesus’s birth. The smooth changes between major and minor harmonies add to the sense of mystery and wonder, and the slow rhythm forces the listener to appreciate the importance of the words. Also, the voices rarely sing together. Rather, each voice echoes and imitates what has already been sung, which helps create the somber atmosphere.
*Music theory: Victoria’s use of open 5th intervals perpetuates a sense of awe in the music. In 5th intervals, the third of the chord is missing; this crucial note determines if the harmony is major or minor, so open 5ths don’t have any harmonic indication (which leaves the listener in suspense).
The music changes to a lilting triple meter as the choir sings “Allelujah!” This is an unexpected yet exciting conclusion to the piece, and it reminds me of a chorus of angels proclaiming the birth of Jesus.
There is something wonderful about the simplicity of Renaissance music. I’d love to know your thoughts about this piece!